Harpenden station – Rothamsted – Redbourn – Redbournbury – St Albans
A stroll through Hertfordshire’s gentle countryside, crossing the low hills from leafy Harpenden to Redbourn, with its gigantic village green, then wandering down the valley of the Ver, past an idyllic working watermill. The grand finale is St Albans, with its Roman remains and breathtaking abbey.
Important note: The path through Gorhambury Park is a permissive path, and the landowners close it occasionally to prevent it becoming a public right of way. It is generally closed on Saturdays between September and the end of January. As the only alternative route is to walk along the busy A5183, it is probably best to avoid doing this walk on those days.
Length: 9 ¼ miles (15.0 km)
Underfoot: Much of this walk is on well-surfaced tracks, paths and minor roads. However, in between there are sections of field and riverside paths that will almost certainly be muddy in winter – especially the paths between Rothamsted and the disused railway line.
Terrain: The walk is through very gentle rolling countryside. The only climb of any note is near the end, up to St Albans cathedral.
Maps: 1:50,000 Landranger 166 Luton & Hertford; 1:25,000 Explorer 182 St Albans & Hatfield.
Getting there: Harpenden is served by 6 Thameslink trains per hour (4 per hour on Sundays) from London Blackfriars (37-53 mins), Farringdon (31-44 mins) and London St Pancras (27-40 mins). 4 of the trains per hour Mon-Sat and all on Sundays also serve London Bridge (49 mins).
2 trains per hour Mon-Sat and all on Sundays serve West Hampstead Thameslink (30 mins) for Jubilee line and London Overground connections and 2 trains per hour Mon-Sat serve Kentish Town (35 mins) for Northern line connections.
Useful websites: The walk follows parts of the River Ver Trail and the Hertfordshire Way, as well as part of the Nickey Line disused railway. It passes Redbournbury Mill, the Roman Theatre of Verulamium, the Verulamium Museum and St Albans Cathedral.
Getting home: St Albans is on the same line as Harpenden, with 8 trains per hour (6 on Sundays) into London, all serving London St Pancras (19-32 mins), Farringdon (25-37 mins) and London Blackfriars (31-40 mins). 4 of the trains each hour also serve London Bridge (39 mins).
4 trains per hour (6 on Sundays) serve West Hampstead Thameslink (25 mins) for Jubilee line and London Overground connections and 4 per hour (2 on Sundays) serve Kentish Town (31 mins) for Northern line connections.
Fares: An off-peak return to Harpenden for £12.70 (child £6.35, railcard £8.40) will cover both journeys.
- Coming from London, you are likely to arrive on platform 2 at Harpenden. Cross via the
footbridge, following signs to way out, to platform 4, and exit through ticket barriers.
- Turn right, past the cottage-like shops and cross at a zebra crossing. Head down the shop-lined street ahead to reach a roundabout. Veer left to a zebra crossing and cross the main road, on the edge of Harpenden Common.
- Head back to the right and cross road to the Pizza Express, then head left to cross a further road to the hairdressers. Take Amenbury Lane up the side of the hairdressers, past the Oak Tree pub.
- Nearing the top of the rise, take Hay Lane left. At the back of the leisure centre, veer
slightly left on a tarmac path into Rothamsted Park. Keep ahead to a fine avenue of trees running through the centre of the park, and turn R along it.
- At the top of a hill, just beyond a barrier, veer right off the avenue onto a well-surfaced, fenced bridleway.
The fields you are cutting through are part of the grounds of Rothamsted Research, formerly the Institute of Arable Crops Research. Founded in 1843, this is one of the oldest agricultural research centres in the world, based in the grounds of 16th century Rothamsted Manor. Following its sale to a family of calvinist brewers from Ghent, fleeing religious persecution, the Manor received a make-over into a Dutch style. The experimental station was founded by the Manor’s owner, and has gradually expanded since. Rothamsted briefly hit the news in 2012, when it began experimental growing of GM crops, leading to a sizeable, but peaceful protest.
- The path cuts across the hilltop and eventually reaches a cottage, before entering a
grassy area with Rothamsted’s roofs ahead. Veer right at a waymark post, over the grass to join a tarmac drive beyond, heading right again. Pass information signs about the Broadbalk experiment, running since 1843.
As Rothamsted’s first experiment, Broadbalk is thought to be the longest-running agricultural experiment in the world. This field of winter wheat is used to test the impacts on yields of a variety of inorganic fertilisers and manure. The control strip, which has remained completely organic, has been growing continuously since 1843.
- At a track junction, follow the bridleway sign to the left. Just before the gate, follow a second sign right along the hedgerow. The first field can often be rather muddy, but it improves later.
- At a crossing track keep straight ahead on a broad path, which soon veers left to the edge of a wood, which it now follows. Very soon you reach the disused railway, where you turn left, towards Redbourn.
You are walking on the trackbed of what was once a minor 9-mile long branch line
linking Harpenden to Hemel Hempstead. Opened in 1871, one of its original key purposes was carrying the straw plaits that were produced in Hemel Hempstead to the hat-making industry in Luton. Once this industry died out, the line served only a limited purpose and its viability was not helped by the fact that a combination of topography and inter-railway company rivalry meant it never had anything more than a sporadic link to the West Coast Mainline at Hemel Hempstead, and passenger trains terminated at a completely separate station. A connection for freight trains was finally built in 1959, and lasted just six months before the entire line was closed. Today, most of the line forms a superb off-road cycle and walking route. The line was always known locally as ‘The Nicky Line’ and the path retains that name today – however, no-one has come up with a satisfactory explanation for the origin of the name!
- The line descends surprisingly steeply and steadily, with good views to the right at times. Eventually you reach busy Redbourn Lane where you turn right to immediately reach a roundabout.
- Head left on the tarmac path around the roundabout, crossing two roads with care. After the second road veer left to rejoin the former railway.
- After about 500m, reach a concrete road and head right, past a small caravan park. Where the road curves right, head left on a narrow, fenced path. Veer right where this joins another path.
- The path twists its way between gardens and across the Ver valley, becoming a track
leading past houses to Redbourn’s fine high street.
The long, straight high street belies its origins – this is Watling Street, a Roman road which took over an earlier trackway, leading from Dover and London to the Welsh borders. Until the motorways arrived, this remained the main route towards Holyhead, and this was the A5, though Redbourn is now by-passed. As a major coaching route, Redbourn developed as a key stopping point – the town became known to travellers as ‘The Street of Inns’, with 25 coaching inns along this high street in the early 19th century coaching heyday, a number of which still remain in business.
- Cross and take the little snicketway almost opposite, running between walls to suddenly
emerge on Redbourn Common. Cross the road and follow the path ahead along an avenue of trees across the Common.
- On reaching another road turn left and at the junction cross and turn right past the Redbourn Museum in Silk Mill House. In front of ‘The Cricketers of Redbourn’ pub, veer left on East Common.
- At the road junction at the bottom of the hill head right and quickly left on a track (footpath sign) over the willow lined Ver. Keep straight ahead on the path, climbing to rejoin the railway path. This time, head left.
- The railway line soon drops to a road where you head right, and at the junction with the
busy B487, cross.
- Take the track opposite. This gradually reduces to a hedge-side footpath. Where the field edge bears slightly left, look out for a River Ver Trail waymark pointing you onto a narrow path between hedge and fence to the left.
- Eventually pass through a kissing gate, across the front of Millstream Barn and out onto the A5183. Cross and take the path opposite through a kissing gate. This runs along the field edge, with an attractive area of reeds and willows to your left.
- A pair of kissing gates leads you onto a short path between hedges which emerges at Redbournbury Mill.
The fast-flowing waters of the Ver long provided power to dozens of mills along its
lower 10 miles – Redbournbury was the second highest situated of those mills. There was a mill on this site at the time of the Domesday Book, though much of what you see today dates from a major rebuilding in 1790, and a restoration after a fire in 1987. The mill fell into disuse in the 1950s, the last of the original millers being Ivy Hawkins, ‘the only lady miller in England’. Following restoration, including of the fire-damaged machinery, the mill began grinding organic flour again in 1998 and there has been an on-site bakery since 2005. There is normally a stall selling the huge range of Redbournbury bread here on Saturday mornings (your author can vouch for it being delicious!) and the mill itself is open to visitors on Sundays from 2pm to 5pm.
- By the bakery, head left on road over bridge across the mill stream. Just beyond, veer left on a path over a FB across the clear, cress filled Ver and join a track beyond, heading around the back of farm buildings. Beyond a wide ford (luckily supplied with footbridge!) take the track right (signed to St Albans).
- Where the main track swings left out of the valley, continue straight ahead on a smaller track (River Ver Trail signs). This emerges into a long open field in the valley bottom, then passes through woods beside a Veolia depot. Across the access road for the depot the path continues ahead, now beside the Ver.
- Before long, you join a metaled track, which continues beside the river. This leads to
attractive Shafford Farm, with a fine water mill built over the stream. At a junction, keep right, still following the sign to St Albans. Pass a row of estate cottages to rejoin the A5183.
- Cross and pass through the footgate opposite (with River Ver Trail waymark) onto the permissive path through the Gorhambury estate. Keep to the track (and later path) sticking close to the meandering river through a plantation.
- Cross an arm of the Ver on an old sluice to reach a metalled track. Turn right over a bridge and at the junction by a line of trees, head left. From the junction there is a brief view of the fine portico of Gorhambury on the hill ahead.
The fine Palladian house you see up on the hill is the ‘new’ Gorhambury House, dating from 1784, to replace a nearby Elizabethan house, which was itself partly built using bricks from the old Benedictine St Albans abbey following its dissolution. Gorhambury has long been in the hands of
the Grimston family (which included a 17th century speaker of the Commons), who since 1815 have rejoiced in the title of Earls of Verulam.
- As you head along the drive, St Albans Abbey appears ahead, apparently isolated amongst trees on the valley floor. Approaching the main road, you pass the Roman theatre on the right (admission charge payable at gate house).
This is one of the few true Roman theatres in Britain, built around AD 140. Whilst situated on the edge of Roman
Verulamium, it was the centre of the town’s cultural life, originally as a venue for religious festivals, wrestling and dancing, but later expanding to become more important as a theatre – by around 300AD, the theatre would have had a capacity of around 2000 spectators. Excavated in the mid 19th century, the theatre is the most dramatic above-ground remains of Roman St Albans.
- Continue through a gate past the fine flint-knapped lodge house. Cross the main road at a pedestrian crossing and take St Michael’s Street opposite. At a junction
you can head right to reach the Verulamium Museum, which covers everday life in Roman Britain.
- Otherwise, head left downhill through pretty St Michael’s, with a couple of attractive old pubs. Just before bridge, head right into Verulamium Park.
The park lies on the site of Roman Verulamium. Following an attack and sacking by Boudica in AD 61, the town grew substantially, covering 125 acres by the start of the third century. It contained a forum and basilica, surrounded by a ditch and wall, with Roman occupation continuing until around AD 450. Following its abandonment, much of
Verulamium was raided as building stone, including for the original abbey. Verulamium was also the site of the martyrdom of St Alban, the first British martyr saint. Having been converted to Christianity by a priest he was hiding, Alban swapped cloaks with the priest when magistrates came searching for him, leading to his own beheading.
- Continue straight ahead along the metalled path, eventually following the lefthand bank of the lake, with a mill leat beside. At end of lake, turn left over the leat then right past the fine half-timbered Ye Olde Fighting Cocks.
Ye Olde Fighting Cocks currently holds the Guinness Book of Records title as the oldest
pub in England, though this is inevitably a hotly-disputed claim. The remarkable octagonal shape of the building is believed to come from the building’s original use as a pigeon house. The name comes from its venue for cockfighting, though it only gained it in the 19th century – before then it was simply known as ‘The Round House’.
- Turn left up Abbey Mill Lane. At the top you reach the Abbey Gate and, beside it, the vast bulk of the abbey itself.
Whilst known as an abbey, since 1877 this has technically been a cathedral church. The
first abbey on this site was constructed in the late 8th century, but most of this building was destroyed by Danish raids. Much of what we see today, including the layout, dates from after the Norman conquest, including the remarkable tower, the only 11th century ‘great crossing’ tower remaining in Britain. Gradually expanded and rebuilt over the following nine centuries – including major repairs after a 13th century earthquake – the current form of the abbey has the longest nave of any cathedral in England. A large shrine to St Alban, the original reason for a church here, still stands inside the abbey. The fine Abbey Gateway dates from the 16th century, and was the only part of
the buildings of the Benedictine monastery to survive the dissolution. Since the dissolution, the gateway’s uses included as a prison and now as part of the private St Albans School.
- Turn right on the path before the Gate to walk along the south side of the abbey. Pass the modern visitor centre and cafe to reach the east end of the abbey. Swing left around the end of the abbey and follow a broad path round to the right, climbing to an archway (Waxhouse Gate) leading out onto a main road opposite the clock tower.
- Cross at the pedestrian crossing and take French Row to the left of the tower. Continue on the broader street ahead – often full of market stalls.
- Past the back of the white town hall cut right and cross at a pedestrian crossing, taking Victoria Street opposite. The station is a not-very-exciting quarter of a mile or so down this road, accessed down steps from the bridge over the railway line.